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The PopOnTop Keyboard by Symbitz Print E-mail
Written by SymbianOne   
Sunday, 29 February 2004
PopOnTop could be the definitive soft keyboard application for UIQ. Richard Bloor looks at this flexible text entry solution from Symbitz.

Symbitz

Formed in 2003 Symbitz is a subsidiary of Action Information Technologies a UK based company that has been developing applications for handheld and wireless computers for over 15 years. With an impressive array of UK and European clients, including Boots, British Airways and TNT, Action Information Technologies has specialized in commercial and industrial applications for Symbol (Palm) and MSDOS. Symbitz is its first venture into both Symbian OS applications and consumer products.

Symbitz has launched its first applications in one of the most demanding areas of Symbian OS development, FEP's. FEP or Front End Processor is an application which literally runs on top of the Symbian OS handling the input of text. The challenge with FEPs is that, unlike other Symbian OS applications, which when the worst happens only stop themselves, a faulty FEP can render a phone inoperable.

A Better Keyboard

Symbitz?s first foray into add-on keyboard software for UIQ was the SeeThru keyboard, an interesting application where the keyboard overlays the entire screen with a transparent keypad allowing application to be fully visible as text is entered.

SeeThru has been followed by the PopOnTop keyboard which is more conventional, in that the keyboards are opaque. However, while the built in keyboard on the Sony Ericsson P800 and P900 is a fairly conservative implementation of a standard QWERTY keyboard the PopOnTop keyboard takes a more radical approach to significantly improve on the built in keyboard by providing:

  • full screen keyboards with left or right handed orientation.
  • keyboard activation using the browser button.
  • keyboards for several layout styles and language variants, with a keyboard gallery on the Symbitz web site.
  • the facility for custom keyboard to be designed by the user.

Getting Started

PopOnTop installs in the usual way and adds a new unfiled item to the main application list.

PopOnTop Installed

The PopOnTop application is simple as it really only serves to allow selection of the keyboard and its activation or deactivation. These facilities are found on the single menu along with options to display the introduction, help and about screens, along with a registration function.

PopOnTop Menu

Settings allows the keyboard style to be selected from the drop down list, along with the option to display full screen keyboards either left or right handed.

Select Option Boards List

There are ten keyboards supplied with PopOnTop including the standard QWERTY (UK and US) AWERY (French), DVORAK, alphabetically ordered, in wide and strip formats and a vowel aligned keyboard. Currently eight additional boards are available for download from Symbitz web site including Spanish, German and Italian layouts. It is also possible to create custom keyboards, which will be discussed in detail shortly.

US format Dvorak Keyboard 06 - German format Qwertz Keyboard

Alphabet Strip Keyboard Crooked Qwerty Keyboard

Once the keyboard to be used has been selected the enable option is selected to activate PopOnTop.

Using PopOnTop

PopOnTop can be used in an application where text or number entry is required. In an application it is activated by pressing the browser key (the one below the camera on the right hand side of the P800 or P900).

Obviously the functionality of PopOnTop now depends on the design of the keyboard selected. There are however a couple of general characteristics which makes PopOnTop more usable than the built in keyboard. Firstly it allows a keyboard to use the whole of the screen, in either horizontal or vertical modes. This means that individual keys can be large which not only makes them easier to see but also allows for typing using a finger rather than a stylus with a fairly high degree of accuracy.

Build Your Own

Keyboards have never really been a personal thing, by and large it was QWERTY or its variants, and the user made do with that, several alternatives have been suggested but none have ever been hugely successful. PopOnTop allows Keyboards to be personal, whether it is simply to provide easier access to special characters or to implement a unique layout, because each keyboard is specified in a simple text file.

Symbitz provides definition files for all its supplied keyboards so custom keyboards can be created by modifying an existing keyboard or starting from scratch.

The definition file is straight forward having only 7 basic entries, a title, a map (or keyboard view), a row within the map and then keys within the row which can be a standard character key or a one of two special keys, shift which switches map for one key press or Lock which permanently switches map. It is also possible to add comments to the definition file.

Keys are defined with Unicode, although Symbitz points out that not all Unicode characters are implemented on every phone, it depends on the phones localization. Keys can occupy multiple columns (like the space bar), have custom foreground and background colors and a legend (obviously the Unicode character is used by default).

The keyboard definition is created with any text editor (see Footnote), saved with the extension *.kbl and copy it to the phones memory to make it available to PopOnTop.

As the keys are laid out in a grid it is necessary to employ the ability of keys to occupy more than one column to create offset key typical of most QWERTY keyboards. Basically this involves creating a keyboard twice the width required, then making each ?normal? key two columns wide. Every other row the first key is then made one column wide (and invisible using the key code 0000) to create an offset keyboard.

OffSet Explained

Draw Backs?

The only significant drawback with PopOnTop appears to be that, rather than replacing the built in keyboard, it replaces the handwriting recognition capabilities of the phone. It is possible to disable the PopOnTop keyboard to use the handwriting recognition but its not a convenient method if you simply want to use the handwriting recognition briefly.

Overall

PopOnTop has two main strengths. It gives the user real choice in the type of keyboard they have for their UIQ phone and for users with either specialist text or symbol entry capabilities, the ability to create customized keyboards to meet their specific needs.

PopOnTop could be the definitive soft keyboard application for UIQ, just about the only keyboard application a user will ever need for their UIQ phone. PopOnTop should become a best seller.

Where To Buy

You can download an evaluation copy of PopOnTop for Sony Ericsson P Series phones from here and for Motorola A Series phones here from the SymbianOne shop. PopOnTop costs US $19.95.

Footnote

There is a Yahoo group, popontopkeyboard, associated with this application. It is not yet very active but a couple of new keyboards have been posted. There is also a handy application to assist with editing KBL files, created by Markus Birth, available from the group.

KBL Visualizer
Last Updated ( Tuesday, 14 October 2008 )
 


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